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Build & Shoot: Rail System

Lesson 19 from: DIY Photography: Lens Attachments, Filters & Creative Effects

Mike Hagen

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Lesson Info

19. Build & Shoot: Rail System

Lesson Info

Build & Shoot: Rail System

- [Mike] So that's the plan. Let's get right to it. I think the first one that I have for you is the DIY Focusing Rail. And so to do that, I'm going to move this stuff out of the way so the house cameras can see it. And here we go. Vises. How cool is that? We're not even in Miami. Sorry. So these vises, I'm going to use. I'll show you how I made them so that we can put a ball head on the top just like that. You then mount your camera to that ball head and then you move the camera forward and backward with the little vise screw here. So a focusing rail, that's really what we're doing. We're doing a very inexpensive focusing rail. So let me talk first about what a focusing rail is and then I'll talk about how I actually constructed that product. So if you go on to any of the higher-end camera stores on their websites, or if you go into Amazon or eBay and you type in "Focus Rail," you'll find these little systems where you can mount the camera, then they've got these little screws on the ...

side that move at a very high precision, move the camera forward and backward. So like when I was doing that rose photograph earlier, you notice how I could get really close to the rose, and if you were paying close attention in the live view mode, if I moved, literally, two millimeters forward, it dramatically changed what I was focused on. Well, a focusing rail allows you to kind of fix in your focus and you're like, "No, I didn't want it on that part of the rose." You rotate it a little bit, it goes a little farther in. Those focusing rails run in price anywhere from multi-hundreds of dollars for a very high-end focusing rail all the way down to, I found them for about $15 or $20 for a fairly low cost focusing rails on Amazon. But I thought, you know, what do we have lying around in our garages? I'm sure all the folks here in the room, you all have vises lying around in your garages. I know. I personally have two or three of them, seriously. But I thought, you know, what are the types of things that you might have in your garage where you can actually create your own focusing rail setup, and I came up with these vises. There's a bunch of different types of vises, you know, big ones, small ones. But the two that I think that you might be interested in using are, one, which is called a drill press vise, and I didn't bring one here today, but it's basically a flat vise down low. The deal with the drill press vise, though, is it has to basically be on the ground or on the table. You can't really mount it on anything. So this vise, I forget the exact name. My box is somewhere around here, but, you know, a vise like this, maybe it's called like a C-clamp vise. I'm not sure exactly the technical name for it. But I paid about $20 for this and I got this at my big box hardware store, you all know the one. How did I get this all to work together? Well, you have to find a way to get a bolt mounted to the vise body. So I'm going to move this over here slowly so the camera can follow. And actually, it won't screw on there. That's okay. So to do that, I used some epoxy. And there's this product, I'm just going to say the name. It's called J-B Weld but it's like liquid metal. We taped it out so the logo is gone. But it's like a liquid metal. It's two-part epoxy, okay? And what you do is you basically squirt out a little bit of…this one's called The Liquid Steel, and this one's called The Binder. You basically squeeze it out on a little card and then you stir it all together with, like, some type of a stick. Then, you get your screw, like I show here, here's the screw, this bolt, this is a 3/8ths inch bolt. Why 3/8ths? Well, 3/8ths is because that's the size of most of your ball heads, the mounting screw on the ball heads. So just make sure your bolt is the same size as the extra ball head. So here, I've got basically an older Manfrotto ball head that I had lying around. This is the 486 RC2. I don't even know if they actually make this one anymore. I forget. That's okay. Okay. So I mix up the liquid metal into this little pile and then put the…I want to mount the bolt onto the vise. But before I do so, I need to rough up the surface of the vise. And so I used a file, like a metal file, and I just gouged at it. And I just gouged it all around, just scratched it up like crazy because that's going to help the whole thing bind together. And then I also used the vise and I just basically smashed up the edges around the bolt as well, okay? And because my bolt was fairly tall, I added another nut on there, just to decrease the working height of the bolt. I just had this lying around my garage. If you are going to buy your own bolt, get a shorter one than I had here. So the only purpose for the other nut is just to reduce the thread length. Okay. Now, I grab a washer. You don't have to have a washer. But I like having washers in between there. Just makes things kind of bind better. I then mount the ball head on to that. And by the way, the liquid metal or this J-B Weld, it takes about four hours to get to the point where stuff's not moving around on you, and then it takes a total of 24 hours until you can actually start using it. That said, it is an epoxy and it isn't technically metal. And so you don't want to like just torque your stuff down. I have a fear that if I rotate too hard on this I might snap it off. So it's strong enough to hold it on for what we're doing here today, but it's not as strong as the actual metal on the vise. Okay, cool. So now what I'm going to do is I'm going to...let me see which camera I want to use and what lens. Yeah, I'll use that stuff. I'll bring that over. We'll end up doing a live view. So now, I set this up. So I can actually mount it to the lip or the edge of a table just like that. Sweet. And now that this ball head is attached here, I can move it all around, I can shoot vertical with the camera, horizontal with the camera, but more importantly, I can actually use this to move the camera forward and backward. So if you're thinking through this like I'm always thinking, you're thinking, "Okay, well, it's not very portable," and you're right. It's not very portable. It doesn't really mount to a tripod. I suppose I could put it on a tripod. I could like screw it onto one of the legs. The setup that I have here is really designed for what I would say tabletop photography. It's not going to work very well in the field. Plus, it's a vise. Are you really going to throw a vise in your camera bag? Probably not. You might as well throw an anvil in there just for grins and giggles. I'm sure that would be a lot of fun. All right. So let's take a photograph of this stuff. Let's see. I think I'll do…yeah. I'll do live view so you kind of get a feel for how this works in real-time. And you know what? I'm not going to do live view because that would mean I'd have to take everything off of here. So I'll just do still photos. Sorry. Bring this over. And just for the fun of it, I'll use our good old friend, the PVC extension tube. All right. Oh. It'll screw on there. Good. I was trying to find a way to get the quick release plate mounted on here, but this one has a screw on the bottom of my regular quick release plate. So I'm double-quick-release-plating. Okay. Cool. Mount this on to this and kind of lock it down. So now the next thing that I need to do is I need to set up a flower so it's about the height of this. And just want a little more cable space, bring that over, and I will now bring in a flower. Let's do this one here. I don't know if I'm going to be able to get the right height. Let me just kind of get the approximate height here. So it's got to be about that high, I'm going to break the stem. Okay, about there. So stuff this in. It's all about problem-solving, right, making stuff happen. Stuff that in here. And the reason why I chose a long flowers is, I'm going to show you we can take a number of photos. You asked right before this, one of the audience members asked, have you ever done focus stacking? And I'm going to show you how we can use this to do focus stacking. It's a really neat technique. Okay. So let me just take a quick test shot and see and make sure everything is exposed properly and focused properly. And so I'll just talk through what I'm doing out loud. Okay, first of all, I need to set my aperture on the lens and for this, I'll just do f/5.6, which is just a good middle aperture. I'm going to set my lens towards the infinity side of things, just like I described before. Cool. And next, I'm going to set my exposure stuff on the camera. So I'm at ISO 3200. That's a little high. Maybe I'll go ISO 800 for this. And my shutter speed, I'm going to go into manual mode. Yeah. My shutter speed, I'm going to be at about… It looks to be about a fifth of a second. Okay. So I'm going to take a test shot and as I move flower is wobbling so I have to be really careful. That flower is going to be bad. It's going to be wobbling all over the place. I may have to choose a different flower, a little more stable flower. Let's try that one. Did that come through on the screen? Okay, it did. And we're over-exposed. I see that. Okay. That's a better, stable flower. Okay. This will work better. All right, take the shot as a test shot and then we'll get into making this move. All right, out of focus, of course. So now, now I'm going to move the flower in, right there, and now we can start the focus moves. Ideally, I'd be using a cable release. In fact, I probably should. But for the sake of time, I won't. Okay, good. So there's our first shot. All right. There's our first macro photo. And if you want to focus a little bit further back on the flower, all you have to do is screw this in just a little bit. So I'm going to screw it a bit, take a photo, and I'm just being very careful, screw it in a little bit, take a photo. Let's see, is it moving down in front of the flower? Slowly, yeah. Good. So sometimes I like to look through here as I do it just to make sure I'm actually moving it a significant amount. So move it in, take a photo. Move it in, take a photo. I could do this forever. Move it in, take a photo. All right. Maybe because this flower isn't all that interesting, to be honest with you, I'm going to break a rose. There we go. I think that's going to be a little more visually interesting. Oh, yeah. That's more better. Everybody likes roses. Okay. So I think we're ready. Yeah. And which direction do I need to go? Okay, good. I'm kind of starting the focus at the far end so I've got room to move the vise in closer. All right, here we go. Take a shot. I think that will be a little bit more visually stimulating, more interesting. Oh, yeah, more better. All right, cool. So now, I'm going to rotate it. In this case, I'm going to rotate it about a half a turn, take another shot, rotate it about half a turn, take another shot. Half a turn, take another shot. So you can see, basically, what's happening is, I'm focusing down the length of the object. That may be a bug, a very slow-moving bug, it may be a flower, whatever. And after this is all said and done, I will have a sequence of images where I focused from the very front of the object all the way through to the very back of the object. Then what I can do is I can bring it into an image stacking program, maybe something like Zerene, Z-E-R-E-N-E, Zerene Stacker. But also, just plain old Photoshop. Photoshop CC has an image stacking utility. You just bring them in on all different layers and then you run the image stacking and image alignment tool and it's like magic. It just automatically stacks them so you have, I don't want to say infinite focus. That's the wrong term, but you have focus from where you started to where you ended. And the cool part of this is you basically have a very limited depth of field for each photo but each part that's in focus is crystal clear sharp, so your bokeh is beautiful. So you can have a very narrow depth of field so your background is, like, super-blurry, but after stacking up each of your individual shots, it looks like your bug is nice and sharp but the background is really blurry. It's a really nice-looking effect. So this is a very inexpensive, you know, focus rail. Notice, though, there are some issues with this arrangement. And notice that the base here kind of moves around a little bit and there's a lot of slop forward and backward, forward and backward. So I think, honestly, the better solution is to use a release cable, and that way, you're not even touching it. And then as you're moving, as you're screwing this forward or backward, whatever direction, because there's slop, you want to get the thing started. Like, here's all the slop. Look at all that turn I'd move in the screw before it even moves. So I want to get it started, so now that I take… like, binds the system together, and then as I take each of my photos with my cable release, I just take it and then I very carefully move it so I don't, like, bump the base, because as I move the camera, you can see there's quite a bit of camera movement. I have thought through this a little bit. There are some ways I can reduce this slop. I can use little metal shims. I can fit the shims inside of here in these metal shafts and just to tighten things up a little bit. So there are ways that you can shim it or tighten it or mash it to improve the overall stability. - [Woman] I'm wondering if a focusing rail for macro won't affect perspective if you move the camera backward and forward instead of leaving the camera right in its place and changing your focus ring. Does the focusing rail respect the perspective and distortion for the macro shot? Is that why you're doing it? - Yeah, super-great question, and I get it perfectly because I've done the same thing myself many times. So when you do focus stacking, what you're trying to do, what you're trying to help the software do is align each of the images perfectly. And so what you want is you don't want like a big change in the overall perspective from shot to shot. So sometimes, like, if the background, let's say by moving the camera forward, you're like, actually going into the scene, right? And so you're, like, changing how the background looks from shot to shot to shot, and that can really mess up your stacking software. So what we do is we do either/or. So his question is great because sometimes it's better just to set your camera, fix your camera in space, and then just change the focus on your lens ever so slightly. Just…you know, turn a little bit, take a picture, turn it, take a picture, turn it, take a picture. That works well sometimes and other times, it works better to actually physically move the camera forward on the subject. So which situations work better for what technique? It's always kind of a guess and you never really know. Sometimes, like, I've done it both ways and I've had really great results by moving the camera, really poor results by rotating the lens. So I know that's a terrible answer for his question, but at the same time, know that both techniques are valid and you may have to apply one technique where the other one didn't actually work. Yeah, awesome question. - Thank you. - So there we go, our vise is pretty cool. It's really nerdy, engineer-y, garage-y. It's just right up my alley. And I actually, now that I've done this, I actually have used this a few times in the last few weeks to do some macro photography and to do some image stacking techniques on my camera and computer, so.

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Ratings and Reviews

a Creativelive Student

It's a fun course, with a lot of interesting ideas presented in a way to help spark the creative juices in anyone wanting to branch out and experiment with different ideas. Mike's presentation style is fun and easygoing - perfect for this type of discussion. If you're not afraid to color outside the lines and see where the road takes you, this is a very enjoyable bit of inspiration.


Love it!! Very creative and full of inspiration. Mike Hagen explains the different effects in a great way, he is precise yet easy-going so he makes learning fun. I recommend this class to all who wants to take their creative photography to the next level without spending money on expensive accessories.


Mike has an easy-going, pleasant & fun personality. He explains things clearly. Rolls with whatever happens. And, he's very good about answering audience questions in an understandable, positively reinforcing and non-judgemental way (which can be rare for some established pro photographers...).

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